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Steve Bellone was warned James Burke’s past would lead to scandal

Then-Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke speaks with

Then-Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke speaks with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone after a news conference in Hauppauge on March 19, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

In December 2011, as the newly elected Steve Bellone prepared to take over as Suffolk County executive the next month, Bellone and his transition team received an anonymous letter with disturbing information about James Burke, the man he wanted to appoint as the new police chief.

The letter included specific allegations of misconduct and warned Bellone to bypass the ex-Suffolk County police officer and district attorney chief investigator: Burke “was known to frequent prostitutes” and “committed at least one armed home invasion” to retrieve a service weapon stolen from him by a prostitute. He interfered with an Internal Affairs investigation into an officer accused of assault. He used damaging information gleaned from a wiretap as leverage to control Bellone’s predecessor, Steve Levy. And he “threatens subordinates with forced transfers, and tells them he is untouchable and that they have no protection and that he will ruin their career forever.”

The letter, which was obtained by Newsday and has not been reported to the public until now, indicates it was written by “dedicated hard working members” of the Suffolk Police Department. Those officers did not want Bellone “to be embarrassed or caught up in a scandal over the dealings” of Burke.

Bellone, in an interview Tuesday, acknowledged that he received and read the letter in December 2011. The letter “seemed crazy to me, honestly,” Bellone said. “It didn’t seem believable to me.”

Despite the ominous warning, Bellone appointed Burke in January 2012 as Suffolk Police’s chief of department, where he commanded 2,400 sworn officers.

Burke held that position during a tumultuous four-year tenure beset by the type of scandal predicted by the author of the anonymous letter. Burke left office in October 2015, less than two months before federal investigators arrested him on charges stemming from his assault of Christopher Loeb, a Smithtown man who had stolen a duffel bag from Burke’s department vehicle.

Burke, 51, has since pleaded guilty to violating Loeb’s civil rights and to orchestrating a departmental cover-up of the crime. Under the terms of the plea deal, Burke will face anywhere from 3 years and 5 months to 4 years and 3 months in prison, a term that is within suggested federal sentencing guidelines for the crimes. Had he been convicted at trial, Burke could have faced up to 20 years.

Newsday has reported that the federal investigation has not ended with Burke and has extended to the district attorney’s office, where Burke worked for nearly a decade before becoming the top uniformed officer in the county.

Burke’s downfall, and the existence of the 2011 letter warning that his appointment would lead to scandal, raise questions about Bellone’s decision to select Burke and his failure to remove him amid mounting evidence that Burke was bringing disgrace to the department.

Bellone publicly supported Burke despite a 2013 Newsday report on a 1995 Internal Affairs investigation that Burke, while a police officer, had engaged in sexual relations with a prostitute in his patrol car. And Bellone continued to support Burke as Newsday published more than a dozen stories concerning the allegations of Burke’s assault of Loeb and the subsequent federal investigation.

Bellone, in the five months since his former police chief was arrested, has repeatedly declined Newsday’s attempts to interview him about Burke. Bellone agreed to talk on the record only after he was informed that the newspaper intended to publish a story about the 2011 anonymous letter.

Ties with Spota

Bellone said he brought the letter to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who had employed Burke since 2002 as his chief investigator. Spota and Burke’s relationship spans decades — Burke was 14 when Spota, as an assistant prosecutor, used Burke as his key witness to testify in the 1979 murder of 13-year-old John Pius, of Smithtown.

“‘Absolutely not. It’s all B.S.,’” Bellone said Spota told him of the allegations against Burke in the letter. “He said, ‘We investigated all that stuff. It’s all B.S.’”

Spota mentioned that he had written his own letter refuting the allegations against Burke, Bellone said, and offered to send it to the incoming county executive to allay his concerns. Bellone said he accepted the offer but doesn’t recall whether Spota ever sent the letter to him.

“I don’t remember getting the letter,” Bellone said. “I don’t remember seeing the letter.”

Regardless, Bellone said he believed Spota and “that was the end of the issue.”

He said he never bothered to discuss the allegations with Burke because Spota had reassured him.

“No. I brought it directly to Spota,” Bellone said.

Bellone did not answer whether he felt misled by Spota.

He said he also relied on a recommendation from Suffolk County Democratic Party chairman Rich Schaffer, who originally introduced him to Burke.

Newsday has reported that Bellone and Schaffer — political allies who were once considered close friends — have been at odds for the past few years.

“He was being vouched for by the most credible people in our government and in our party,” Bellone said of Burke.

Spota did not respond to a request for an interview. His spokesman, Robert Clifford, flatly denied in an email sent to Newsday Thursday that Spota had reassured Bellone about Burke’s Internal Affairs file or vouched for his character. “The district attorney did no such thing,” Clifford wrote.

Clifford did not address whether Spota had seen or discussed the anonymous letter with Bellone but offered that Spota had never reviewed Burke’s Internal Affairs file: “Any claim to the contrary is entirely false.”

(Newsday reported in January that law-enforcement sources say Christopher McPartland, Spota’s division chief of investigations, requested Burke’s Internal Affairs files from police headquarters in December 2011, after Bellone had decided to appoint Burke. It’s unclear whether McPartland ever received the files, a source said, but his request would have occurred during the same month that Bellone received the anonymous letter.)

Schaffer said in an interview Thursday that shortly after Bellone was elected, Burke asked for an introduction to Bellone. Schaffer said he arranged the meeting but did so without telling Spota, who would have wanted Burke to remain in the district attorney’s office, Schaffer said.

“Steve met with [Burke] at his house for two or three hours,” Schaffer said. “Steve called me and said that he loved him and was very happy with him.”

Schaffer said he remembers seeing the anonymous letter but told Bellone that Burke was “a good guy.” He said he now regrets that he ever introduced Burke to Bellone.

“I’m very disappointed in what he [Burke] did and yeah, I’m sorry that I did introduce him because if all those things were true at the time, they should have been made public,” Schaffer said.

Internal Affairs probe

Less than two years after Bellone received the anonymous letter, Newsday published a story in October 2013 about the Internal Affairs probe into Burke’s sexual relationship with Lowrita Rickenbacker, a felon with a history of prostitution arrests.

The 1995 IA report, which Newsday made available online, found Burke guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for twice failing to safeguard his weapon, engaging in sexual acts in police vehicles and having a sexual relationship with Rickenbacker, “a convicted felon known to be actively engaged in criminal conduct including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny.”

Bellone stood behind the embattled police chief, issuing a public statement that Burke “was promoted seven times under three administrations, oversaw investigations for District Attorney Spota, and he has also received 45 commendations for outstanding service.”

Bellone said Tuesday that he didn’t even realize that the Rickenbacker probe was the incident referred to in the anonymous letter.

“I didn’t connect the Rickenbacker story to that conversation I had with Tom Spota two years before, or that letter,” Bellone said. “The Rickenbacker story came out, and obviously no one was happy about it.”

Bellone said Burke “defended himself” when he asked him about the Internal Affairs report.

“He said he never pled to anything, that he never agreed to any of the charges. He was given a small penalty at the time, and he was done from there. And he had a successful career until the time I came in,” Bellone said. “So, despite the story not being a great story, it was still, you know, something that happened 20 years before. It didn’t reflect anything that was apparent to me in his career.”

The details of Burke’s past relationship with a prostitute came as federal authorities were investigating allegations that Burke had assaulted Loeb, the Smithtown man who stole a duffel bag from the chief’s department vehicle.

Bellone said Burke convinced him that the newspaper stories were simply an effort by disgruntled enemies to ruin his reputation and “drag him down.”

“The frame in which this was being put is that there were people out to get Burke and the DA and that it’s part of an effort to ruin his reputation from people in the department who were passed over” for promotions, Bellone said.

Bellone said Burke admitted he went to Loeb’s house and then to the precinct where Loeb was being held. But Burke said he never assaulted Loeb and only “congratulated the men” who arrested the person who stole the duffel bag from his SUV. Bellone said he believed Burke’s account.

Late last year, Bellone said he learned something that finally changed his opinion of Burke. He declined to explain what it was but said it had nothing to do with the federal investigation.

Bellone said he summoned Burke to his office on Oct. 27 and during that meeting Burke again lied to him about assaulting Loeb.

Later that day, Bellone told the public that he and Burke had “mutually agreed” that Burke should resign. In reality, Bellone said Burke tried to keep his job but Bellone fired him.

“I believed that he had lied to me about Loeb and he continued to deny it,” Bellone said. He said he fired Burke despite objections from officials within his administration who were concerned about making such a high- profile decision with the election only days away. Bellone was ultimately re-elected.

Bellone said he never imagined that appointing Burke — who had been highly recommended by lawyers, judges and the district attorney — would lead to federal investigations and one of the biggest scandals in the county’s history.

“I was impressed with him personally,” Bellone said. “His record, his resume, his vision for the department. And he was highly recommended by people that were very well-respected and trusted.”

The anonymous letter he received from strangers before taking office said otherwise. But the people whose advice he trusted told him to ignore the allegations because they were false, he said.

“Clearly the information I received was inaccurate,” Bellone said.

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